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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

5 June 2015

Are the Arts and Humanities More Digital than the Sciences?

The SMKE workshop on Scholarly Communication in the 21st Century: a Survivor’s Guide on 4 June 2015 was very enjoyable and packed with information. I fear my keynote was less a survival guide than a mixture of personal reminiscence and a chance to share my enthusiasm for work I consider forward-looking, such as the artists Thomson & Craighead, and Ruth Ewan. For what they are worth, the slides from my talk are available at: http://www.slideshare.net/burgess1822/doing-the-digital-how-scholars-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-computer

The doctoral students and early career researchers who attended this event will have been left in no doubt as to the extent to which academic life and publication expectations in the UK is dominated by the grizzly subject of the Research Excellence Framework (one of the finest examples of Newspeak currently in use in British public life, known affectionately as the REF). The release of the results of the REF, sensitively timed for the week before Christmas 2014, led to a rash of abstruse calculations designed to show that particular universities or departments had done amazingly well, demonstrated in a bewildering variety of league tables. The absurdity of the exercise is illustrated by the way in which universities that evidently had very limited interest in research loudly claimed  to have centres of international excellence. It’s tempting to suggest that the whole thing is an objectionable and unethical intrusion into academic values, as my friend Lorna Hughes argues in her blog, but the outcomes of the REF have to be taken very seriously, as they are not only marketing opportunities for university, but a great deal of funding depends on the REF results, and departments are already being closed down and academics fired or put on teaching-only contracts throughout the UK due to poor REF results. That is the reason UK academics are obsessive about the REF.

Having said that, the publication of the results of the REF offers a great deal of fascinating information about trends in scholarly research in the UK. Statements by each department outlining their research strategy and achievements (environment templates, in REF speak) and describing the impact of their research outside the academy are available for download on the REF website. Details of each of the thousands of pieces of research submitted by individual researchers are also available as spreadsheets. There is an enormous amount of data from the REF available for crunching, and I’m delighted that my friends at the Academic Book of the Future project at UCL and King’s College London will be undertaking a detailed analysis of this data to investigate trends in scholarly publication. Their results will be very interesting, but in the meantime the initial top level analyses on the REF website offer some intriguing insights into the state of digital humanities in the UK.

There were four large subject panels in the REF: Panel A was broadly medicine and life sciences; Panel B included chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science and engineering; Panel C was broadly social sciences and law; while most of the arts and humanities were under Panel D. A large number of sub-panels assess individual disciplinary areas (or again Units of Assessments, UoA, in REF-speak). In the previous research assessment exercise in 2008, there were 15 main panels, and 67 sub-panels. In 2008, those digital humanities centres which submitted to the REF chose the Library and Information Science UoA, and they did very well, with both King’s College London and HATII at the University of Glasgow getting particularly good results.

There were two big changes between the exercise in 2008 and REF in 2014 which had major implications for digital humanities. First, it was declared that (with some exceptions which we don’t need to go into here) only academics on full research and teaching contracts were eligible for submission to the REF. This was devastating for digital humanities, since a number of digital humanities centres had submitted to the previous research assessment exercises librarians, curators and staff from information services who were publishing books and articles on digital humanities. These were now excluded from the REF. Moreover, research staff who were working on other people’s projects - a very large proportion of the staff in a department like that at King’s College London - were also excluded (again, there were some exceptions, but we won’t go into the theology of it here). In short, anyone who wasn’t occupying a conventional academic post was generally excluded from the REF. For a new discipline which is predicated on different types of posts with new mixtures of skills, this was devastating, and it meant for example that HATII in the University of Glasgow, which had performed very well in the Research Assessment Exercise in 2008, couldn’t muster sufficient critical mass to be entered in REF 2014.

The second big change arose from the reduction in the number of panels. This meant that disciplines were arbitrarily grouped together to reduce administrative costs. Some of the initial proposals - for example that Classics should be lumped in with History and Archaeology - produced strong protests. Classics was successful through its national subject association in arguing that it should have a separate sub-panel. Library and Information Science was merged with Cultural and Media Studies in UoA 36: ‘Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management’ - unlike Classics, the librarians were unable to fend off this change. (Incidentally, the hope sometimes expressed that Digital Humanities will eventually have its own sub-panel in the REF is pie in the sky. With the trend towards merger of disciplines in the REF to reduce costs, Digital Humanities will not have its own sub-panel until it is of a size comparable to such disciplines as History or Chemistry, which may happen one day, but certainly not in my lifetime.) Given that the intellectual relationship of Digital Humanities to cultural and media studies is a contentious subject, the way in which REF is now providing such a strong institutional imperative for DH to become linked with cultural and media studies is striking, particularly as it is not being driven by the DH community itself. The contrast between the success of Classics (through its strong subject association) in arguing for independent status with the failure of Digital Humanities to have much influence on the REF process is also instructive, and suggests that Digital Humanities in the UK should pay more attention to the creation of a strong national subject association, and pay less attention than it has done in the past to international collaboration, which is of little value in lobbying on REF matters.

It is surprising that this shotgun marriage of Cultural and Media Studies with Digital Humanities in the UK has not been more widely discussed, as I feel it has major implications for the future of Digital Humanities, particularly given the historic prominence of Britain in the subject area. The tactical question for individual universities in preparing their REF submissions was how far their submissions should also fuse the subject areas. For those universities where long-established digital humanities centres, such as the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, were not returned to the REF, their work nevertheless features prominently in the environment templates of their partners, such as the Department of History. In the case of the University of Glasgow, the submission to UoA 36 by the School of Creative and Cultural Arts makes no reference to Digital Humanities activities, but Glasgow’s Digital Humanities activities figure prominently in the University’s submission to the English Language and Literature panel. Some institutions take little account of the merger of the panel in their submissions. The environment template for UCL describes the work of the Department of Information Studies there, with Digital Humanities and the work of UCLDH signalled as one of the major research groupings within the Department, with links to engineering, thus providing a fairly traditional view of the role of DH. By contrast, King’s College London made a joint submission of two departments, the Creative Media and Cultural Industries Department, and the Department of Digital Humanities. The environment template (which I helped to write) offers an intellectual synthesis of the two subject areas that responds strongly to the changed constitution of the panel.

It is difficult to interpret the panel’s ranking of these environment templates, but looking at the outcome, there is clearly a sense that the panel this time preferred environment templates that addressed the whole range of the subject areas and looked to the links between library and information science on the one hand and Cultural and Media Studies on the other. It is unlikely that there will be more panels in the next REF - indeed there will probably be pressure to reduce costs by having yet fewer panels - so Digital Humanities centres and departments hoping to submit to the REF need to take all this into account.

While the disciplinary position of Digital Humanities as reflected in the REF might seem to be subject to some major challenges, in other ways the REF offers grounds for optimism. The REF web site offers some preliminary analysis of the different formats in research submitted to the REF. Not surprisingly, the message across the board is of the dominance of the book, chapters in books and above all the peer-reviewed journal article. Of the 215,507 outputs submitted overall to the REF, 157,021 were journal articles and 28,628 were books or chapters in books. The REF goes out of its way to ensure that research can be submitted in any format, but few institutions took advantage of this. There were 757 physical artefacts submitted, 1746 exhibitions and performances, 1684 other documentary outputs, and 553 others. The proportion of digital artefacts submitted to the REF was very small: just 761 altogether.

But if we look at just the outputs for Panel D, the panel that covered most of the arts and humanities, something very interesting emerges. Of those 761 digital outputs submitted to the REF, 674 or 88% were from the arts and humanities. In other words, it seems to be scholars in the arts and humanities who are more insistent that their work in digital media is central to their research. The overall output format figures from Panel D were 19527 books or chapters in books; 1707 exhibitions and performances; 874 other documentary formats; 731 physical artefacts; 674 digital artefacts; 471 other.

It does look as if it is scholars in the arts and humanities who are more likely to experiment with the format of their research and who are disseminating their research in digital form. I’ve made a cut-down version of the spreadsheet giving details of the digital REF outputs, and made it publicly available as a Google sheet. It’s a fascinating browse: not only are there very well-known projects, such as London Lives, the Newton project or EpiDoc, but also many less high-profile projects, and overall this list of pioneering digital research illustrates the variety and creativity in the field. As you browse through the list, you will see that there are issues in the classification which may suggest caution in interpreting these figures. For example, many recordings of musical performances because they were submitted on CD or DVD are categorised as digital artefacts, but I’m not sure they represent digital scholarship as we would understand it. On the other hand, many digital projects were submitted as scholarly editions which were included in the figure for printed books, so it's swings and roundabouts: here's a Google sheet of the scholarly editions.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that the arts and humanities is more digital than other disciplines - after all, many of those printed articles in the other STEM panels describe work on technologies which will enable future digital scholarship in the humanities - but there does seem to be a stronger engagement with digital methods of communicating research in the arts and humanities than elsewhere. Eric Meyer and Ralph Schroeder in their recent book for MIT Press, Knowledge Machines: Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities likewise report the results of a 2009 survey of 426 humanities scholars, in which 98% considered digital tools useful and 83% considered themselves enthusiasts or advocates for digitisation. Eric and Ralph point out that, surprisingly, there is apparently more enthusiasm for digital methods among humanities scholars than among social scientists. Only 60% of a survey of social scientists considered digital tools useful, and a mere 33% described themselves as enthusiasts or advocates for digitisation. Eric and Ralph suggest that this is because humanities scholars have a closer engagement with primary materials and editions, a pattern that also seems to be echoed in the REF information.

As government cuts continue to bite, it will be necessary to increase our advocacy for the value of the arts and humanities. Maybe our pioneering of digital creativity and content deserves greater prominence in this advocacy than it has had hitherto.


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